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MQ-9 Reaper in flight
The United States, mainly through he CIA, has used Predator and Reaper drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, to go after Al-Qaida leaders and other terrorist targets. Drones have been used in lethal attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya. The United States is believed to control the fleet of drones from CIA headquarters in Virginia, coordinating with civilian pilots near hidden airfields in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen who fly the drones remotely.

The drones operate from about 10,000 feet and can ‘sloiter,” watching a target or waiting for the right time to strike for 10 hours or more. Operators at CIA headquarters in Langley in suburban Virginia can fly the drones and fire missiles from them and watch on video as they explode on computer or television screens thousands of miles away from the battlefield or target. Critic claim that drones are creating a 'Playstation' mentality to killing," referring to the popular Sony video game console. "The Predator stuff gets to be very, very personal," a former U.S. official involved with drones told the Los Angeles Times. "You're basically seeing a person and the people around them, and you know that in 20 or 30 seconds they very well could be dead, if you give the order." [Source: Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2011]

According to Wikipedia: “As of March 2009, the U.S. Air Force had 195 MQ-1 Predators and 28 MQ-9 Reapers in operation. Predators and Reapers fired missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. A report in March 2009 indicated that U.S. Air Force had lost 70 Predators in air crashes during its operational history. Fifty-five were lost to equipment failure, operator error, or weather. Four have been shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq. Eleven more were lost to operational accidents on combat missions. The 3rd Special Operations Squadron is currently the largest Predator squadron in the United States Air Force. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is operating an unknown number of Predators. [Source: Wikipedia]

The United States is among 40 countries with drone technology, according to Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Britain, China, France, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey have been named as having or seeking the capacity to fire missiles from their drones. Israel and Russia are both believed to have the technology to carry out drone-fired missiles attacks and both have carried out extrajudicial executions (Israel against Hamas leaders and Russia against Chechen leaders). Drones have been used by the Italian Air Force since the end of 2004. Two civil-registered unarmed drones have been operated by the Office of the National Security Advisor in the Philippines since 2006. The Predator has been licensed to sell to Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.[Source: Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters, June 2, 2010; Wikipedia]

Early History of Drones

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Predator firing a Hellfire missile
According to Wikipedia the CIA and the Pentagon began experimenting with reconnaissance drones in the early 1980s. The CIA preferred small, lightweight, unobtrusive drones. In the early 1990s, the CIA became interested in the "Amber", a drone developed by Leading Systems, Inc., owned by Abraham Karem, the former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force who had immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s. Karem's company later went bankrupt and was bought up by a U.S. defense contractor, from whom the CIA secretly bought five drones (now called the "GNAT"). Karem agreed to produce a quiet engine for the vehicle, which had until then sounded like "a lawnmower in the sky". The new development became known as the "Predator". [Source: Wikipedia]

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA) was awarded a contract to develop the Predator in January 1994, and the initial Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) phase lasted from January 1994 to June 1996. The aircraft itself was a derivative of the GA Gnat 750 UAV. During the ACTD phase, three systems were purchased from GA, comprising twelve aircraft and three ground control stations. From April through May 1995, the Predator ACTD aircraft were flown as a part of the Roving Sands 1995 exercises in the U.S. The exercise operations were successful, and this led to the decision to deploy the system to the Balkans later in the summer of 1995. During the ACTD, Predators were operated by a combined Army/Navy team managed and first deployed to Gjader, Albania, for operations in the Former Yugoslavia in Spring 1995.

The first overseas deployment took place in the Balkans, from July to November 1995, under the name Nomad Vigil. Operations were based in Gjader, Albania. At least two Predators were lost during Nomad Vigil, one of them to hostile fire. Several others were destroyed in the course of Operation Noble Anvil, the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia: One aircraft was lost in April 1999, following fuel system problems and icing; a second aircraft was lost in May when it was shot down by a Serbian Strela-1M surface-to-air missile over the village of Biba (a Serbian TV crew videotaped this incident); and a third aircraft crashed in May near the town of Talinovci, and Serbian news reported that this, too, was the result of anti-aircraft fire.

By the start of the United States Afghan campaign in 2001, the USAF had acquired 60 Predators, and said it had lost 20 of them in action. Few if any of the losses were from enemy action, the worst problem apparently being foul weather, particularly icy conditions. Some critics within the Pentagon saw the high loss rate as a sign of poor operational procedures. In response to the losses caused by cold weather flight conditions, a few of the later Predators obtained by the USAF were fitted with de-icing systems, along with an uprated turbocharged engine and improved avionics.

Drones and the Early Hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida Leaders

MQ-9 Reaper
In 2000 a joint CIA-Pentagon effort was agreed to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Dubbed "Afghan Eyes", it involved a projected 60-day trial run of Predators over the country. The first experimental flight was held on September 7, 2000. White House security chief Richard A. Clarke was impressed by the resulting video footage; he hoped that the drones might eventually be used to target Bin Laden with cruise missiles or armed aircraft. Clarke's enthusiasm was matched by that of Cofer Black, head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC), and Charles Allen, in charge of the CIA's intelligence-collection operations. The three men backed an immediate trial run of reconnaissance flights. Ten out of the ensuing 15 Predator missions over Afghanistan were rated successful. [Source: Wikipedia]

Peter Finn wrote in the Washington Post: “In January 2000, the National Security Council directed the CIA to locate and track Osama bin Laden, in a possible prelude to a military strike. In the risk-averse world before Sept. 11, 2001, neither the Pentagon nor the CIA’s leadership could countenance allowing even limited forces in northern Afghanistan or neighboring countries to carry out the directive. At the time, Henry A. Crumpton was responsible for the CIA’s global counter-terrorism operations, and he and a small group of other officials pushed “a reluctant and even suspicious interagency bureaucracy” toward the position that unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — could provide a solution. [Source: Peter Finn, Washington Post, May 25, 2012]

“The CIA found a Predator drone, which had seen some service over Bosnia, gathering dust at an Air Force base and moved it to a base in Uzbekistan. After a human source revealed that bin Laden was at the Tarnak Farms compound, near Kandahar, in a now-famous incident the Predator’s cameras zoomed in on a tall man dressed in white. “Holy Mother of God,” said one of the operatives watching the video-stream. But the Predator was not armed with Hellfire missiles. It would take six hours for cruise missiles fired from the Indian Ocean to hit the target, and the Clinton White House balked. The figure was subsequently deemed to be "probably bin Laden."

MQ-9 Reaper dimensioned sketch
Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker: The first promise of an intelligence breakthrough came in the fall of 2000, when [Clinton’s counter-terrorism czar Richard] Clarke, and a few allies in the C.I.A. and the military, recognized the potential of the Predator, a nine-hundred-and-fifty-pound unmanned propeller plane being tested by General Johnny Jumper, the Air Force’s head of air combat at the time. It could supply live video surveillance — day or night, and through cloud cover. Clarke said that the plane, which was tested in Afghanistan, supplied “spectacular” pictures of suspected Al Qaeda terrorists, including one of a tall, white-robed man who closely resembled bin Laden and was surrounded by security guards as he crossed a city street to a mosque. [Source: Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, August 4, 2003]

At the C.I.A.’s Global Response Center, analysts who were used to receiving fuzzy satellite photographs and thirdhand reports were now able to watch as live video feeds captured the daily routines inside Al Qaeda training camps. They watched as men did physical exercises, fired their weapons, and practiced hand-to-hand combat. Two or three times that fall, intelligence analysts thought they might have spotted bin Laden himself. The man in question was unusually tall, like bin Laden, and drove the same model of truck that bin Laden preferred, the Toyota Land Cruiser. (The images weren’t clear enough, however, to allow analysts to discern appearance features.) The C.I.A. rushed the surveillance tapes over to the White House, where the President, like everyone else, was stunned by their clarity. Later that fall, however, fierce winds in the Hindu Kush caused the Predator to crash. The accident led to recriminations inside the C.I.A. and the Air Force and quarrels about which part of the bureaucracy should pay for the damage.

By early 2001, Clarke and a handful of counter-terrorism specialists at the C.I.A. had learned of an Air Force plan to arm the Predator. The original plan called for three years of tests. Clarke and the others pushed so hard that the plane was ready in three months. In tests, the craft worked surprisingly well. In the summer of 2001, an armed Predator destroyed a model of bin Laden’s house which had been built in the Nevada desert. But Clarke said, “Every time we were ready to use it, the C.I.A. would change its mind. The real motivation within the C.I.A., I think, is that some senior people below Tenet were saying, “It’s fine to kill bin Laden, but we want to do it in a way that leaves no fingerprints. Otherwise, C.I.A. agents all over the world will be subject to assassination themselves.” They also worried that something would go wrong — they’d blow up a convent and get blamed.”

In November 2001, Clarke said, the United States finally deployed the armed Predator to help destroy what video surveillance showed to be a high-level Al Qaeda meeting outside Kabul. In many respects, the trial run was a brilliant success. The strike killed Al Qaeda’s military chief, Mohammad Atef, who left behind valuable documents. But evidently bin Laden was spared.

Book: “The Art of Intelligence: Lessons From a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service”by Henry A. Crumpton (Penguin Press, 2012)

Drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan

According to Wikipedia: On February 16, 2001 at Nellis Air Force base, a Predator successfully fired three Hellfire AGM-114C missiles into a target. The newly armed Predators were given the designation of MQ-1A. In the first week of June, 2001, a Hellfire missile was successfully launched on a replica of bin Laden's Afghanistan Tarnak residence built at a Nevada testing site. A missile launched from a Predator exploded inside one of the replica's rooms; it was concluded that any people in the room would have been killed. On September 4, 2001 (after the Bush cabinet approved a Qaeda/Taliban plan) CIA chief Tenet order the agency to resume reconnaissance flights. The Predators were now weapons-capable, but didn't carry missiles because the host country (presumably Uzbekistan) hadn't granted permission. [Source: Wikipedia]


Subsequent to 9/11, approval was quickly granted to ship the missiles, and the Predator aircraft and missiles reached their overseas location on September 16, 2001. The first mission was flown over Kabul and Kandahar on September 18 without carrying weapons. Subsequent host nation approval was granted on October 7 and the first armed mission was flown on the same day.

In February 2002, armed Predators are thought to have been used to destroy a sport utility vehicle belonging to suspected Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and inadvertently kill Afghan scrap metal collectors near Zhawar Kili because one of them resembled Osama bin Laden. In March 2002, a CIA-operated Predator fired a Hellfire missile into a reinforced Taliban machine gun bunker that had pinned down an Army Ranger team whose CH-47 Chinook had crashed on the top of Takur Ghar Mountain in Afghanistan. Previous attempts by flights of F-15 and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft were unable to destroy the bunker. On April 6, 2011, the Predator had its first friendly fire incident when observers at a remote location did not relay their doubts about the target to the operators at Creech Air Force Base.

Since at least 2004, the CIA has allegedly been operating the drones out of Shamsi airfield in Pakistan to attack militants in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Since May 2005 the MQ-1 Predator fitted with Hellfire missiles has been successfully used to kill a number of prominent al Qaeda operatives. The use of the Predator has also resulted in a number of civilian deaths, particularly on January 13, 2006 when 18 civilians were killed. According to Pakistani authorities, the U.S. strike was based on faulty intelligence.

Drones in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Somalia

According to Wikipedia: An Iraqi MiG-25 shot down a Predator performing reconnaissance over the no fly zone in Iraq on December 23, 2002. This was the first time in history a conventional aircraft and a drone had engaged each other in combat. Predators had been armed with AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles, and were being used to "bait" Iraqi fighters, then run. In this incident, the Predator did not run, but instead fired one of its Stingers. The Stinger's heat-seeker became "distracted" by the MiG's missile and missed the MiG. The Predator was hit by the MiG's missile and destroyed. Another two Predators had been shot down earlier by Iraqi SAMs, one of them on September 11, 2001. [Source: Wikipedia]

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During the initial phases of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a number of older Predators were stripped down and used as decoys to entice Iraqi air defenses to expose themselves by firing. From July 2005 to June 2006, the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron participated in more than 242 separate raids, engaged 132 troops in contact-force protection actions, fired 59 Hellfire missiles; surveyed 18,490 targets, escorted four convoys, and flew 2,073 sorties for more than 33,833 flying hours. Iraqi insurgents intercepted video feeds, which were not encrypted, using a $26 piece of Russian software named SkyGrabber. The encryption for the ROVER feeds were removed for performance reasons.

On November 3, 2002, a Hellfire missile was fired at a car in Yemen, killing Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, an al-Qaeda leader thought to be responsible for the USS Cole bombing. It was the first direct U.S. strike in the War on Terrorism outside Afghanistan. On 30 September 2011, a Hellfire fired from an American UAV killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-citizen cleric and Al Qaeda leader, in Yemen. Also killed was Samir Khan, an American born in Saudi Arabia, who was editor of al-Qaeda's English-language webzine, Inspire (magazine). (See Al-Qaida Leaders).

U.S Air Force MQ-1B Predators have been involved in reconnaissance and strike sorties in Operation Unified Protector in Libya. An MQ-1B fired its first hellfire in the conflict on April 23, 2011, striking a BM-21 Grad. There are also some suggestions that a Predator was involved in the final attack against Gaddafi. On 25 June 2011, US Predator drones attacked an al Shabaab training camp south of Kismayo, Somalia. Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al Shabaab leader was rumored to be killed in the strike. Four Al-Shabaab fighters, including a white Kenyan, were killed in a drone strike late February.

Since 2005, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has flown Predator drones at an altitude of 15,000 feet for policing immigration, drug smugglers and terrorists along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper), which can remain in flight for 30 hours, contains a globe on the bottom of the UAV that is responsible for monitoring illegal activity on the 2,000 mile border. By 2016, the CBP is planning on having as many as 24 Predators that can be deployed anywhere in the continental U.S. within three hours.

Predator getting some rest

Drones and the Obama Administration

The use of drones has increased under the Obama administration. There were more drone attacks in September and October 2009 than there were in all of 2008, the last year Bush was in office. At the same time efforts to capture Al-Qaida suspects virtually stopped. Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA, told David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “Have we made detention and interrogation so legally difficult and politically risky that our default option is to kill our adversaries rather than capture and interrogate them?”

Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post: “Increased reliance on drone attacks is part of the administration’s long-range counterterrorism strategy. Since the program is supposed to be secret, officials use euphemisms when speaking about it publicly. John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, said...that “our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.” [Source: Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, June 30, 2011]

James Traub wrote in Foreign Policy: “In April 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to widen the scope of drone attacks carried out against al Qaeda members in Yemen. Previously, strikes targeted only known individuals; henceforth, the CIA and the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command will be permitted to target people whose patterns of behavior make them high-value targets. After years of refusing to acknowledge the secret effort, the White House has decided to openly make the argument for drones. On April 30, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan delivered a speech in which he argued that targeted strikes from remote aircraft satisfy the criteria of just war and constitute a "wise" choice because they allow for immediate response, eliminate American casualties, and minimize -- virtually to zero, according to Brennan though not to a multitude of skeptics -- collateral damage to civilians. Brennan went into unusual detail in explaining the painstaking standards applied to each targeting decision. [Source: James Traub, Foreign Policy, May 11, 2012]

MQ-1 Predator

David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post: Under “signature” targeting the drones can strike al-Qaeda training camps and fighters not on the list of specific targets compiled by the CIA. The signature approach is more aggressive, but it risks creating what terrorism analyst David Kilcullen calls “accidental guerrillas” — and thereby widening the war. [Source: David Ignatius, Washington Post, September 22, 2011]

Predator Drone

The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Initially conceived in the early 1990s for reconnaissance and forward observation roles, the Predator carries cameras and other sensors but has been modified and upgraded to carry and fire two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or other munitions. The aircraft, in use since 1995, has seen combat over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. [Source: Wikipedia]

The RQ-1 and MQ-1 Predator are manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. First flown in July 1994 and first put into action in July 1995, it is used primarily by United States Air Force (USAF) and CIA. About 360 (285 RQ-1, 75 MQ-1) had been produced as of 2011. The Program cost was $2.38 billion in 2011. Each Predator cost about $4.03 million.

The USAF describes the Predator as a "Tier II" MALE UAS (medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system). The UAS consists of four aircraft or "air vehicles" with sensors, a ground control station (GCS), and a primary satellite link communication suite. Powered by a Rotax engine and driven by a propeller, the air vehicle can fly up to 400 nautical miles (740 km) to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, then return to its base.

Following 2001, the RQ-1 Predator drone became the primary UAV used for offensive operations by the USAF and the CIA in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas; it has also been deployed elsewhere. Because offensive uses of the Predator are classified, U.S. military officials have reported an appreciation for the intelligence and reconnaissance-gathering abilities of UAVs but declined to publicly discuss their offensive use. The improvements in the MQ-1B production version include an ARC-210 radio, an APX-100 IFF/SIF with mode 4, a glycol-weeping "wet wings" ice mitigation system, up-graded turbo-charged engine, fuel injection, longer wings, dual alternators as well as other improvements.

The Predator's infrared camera with digitally-enhanced zoom has the capability of identifying the heat signature of a human body from an altitude of 3 km (10,000 ft), making the aircraft an ideal search and rescue tool as well as killing machine and assassination weapon. The longest declassified Predator flight to date lasted for 40 hours, 5 minutes. The total flight time reached 1 million hours as of April 2010.

MQ-9 Reaper

Reaper Drone

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (also called Predator B or Guardian) is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), capable of remote controlled or autonomous flight operations. Regarded as a combat air vehicle, the MQ-9 is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. [Source: Wikipedia]

MQ-9 Reaper is manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. First flown in February 2001 and put into action in May 2007, it is used by the United States Air Force, the United States Navy, the CIA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Royal Air Force, and the Italian Air Force. Fifty-seven had been built as of 2011. The program cost is around $11.8 a year. The unit cost of $154.4 million, includes four aircraft (US$30.3 million/aircraft (2011), ground control stations, and Predator Primary Satellite Link.

The MQ-9 is a larger and heavier, and a more capable aircraft, with a longer loitering time, than the MQ-1 Predator. The MQ-9 can be controlled by the same ground systems used to control MQ-1s. The Reaper has a 950-shaft-horsepower (712 kW) turboprop engine, far more powerful than the Predator's 115 hp (86 kW) piston engine. The power increase allows the Reaper to carry 15 times more ordnance and cruise at almost three times the speed of the MQ-1. Although the MQ-9 can fly pre-programmed routes autonomously, the aircraft is monitored or controlled by aircrew in the Ground Control Station (GCS) and weapons employment is commanded by the flight crew.

In 2008 the New York Air National Guard 174th Fighter Wing began the transition from F-16 piloted fighters to MQ-9 Reapers, becoming the first fighter squadron conversion to an all-UCAV attack squadron. As of March 2011, the U.S. Air Force was training more pilots for advanced unmanned aerial vehicles than for any other single weapons system. Then U.S. Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley said, "We've moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper."

Hellfire Missile

Hellfire AGM-114A
The AGM-114 Hellfire is an air-to-surface missile (ASM) developed primarily for anti-armor use. It has multi-mission, multi-target precision-strike capability, and can be launched from multiple air, sea, and ground platforms. The Hellfire missile is the primary 100 lb-class air-to-ground precision weapon for the armed forces of the United States and many other nations. The HELLFIRE name comes from its original intention as a helicopter-launched fire-and-forget weapon (HELicopter Launched FIRE-and-forget). [Source: Wikipedia]

The AGM-114 Hellfire is a combat-proven tactical missile system. The missile has been in combat use since the mid-1980s. The Hellfire today is a comprehensive weapon system, one that can be deployed from rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, waterborne vessels and land-based systems against a variety of targets. The development of the Hellfire Missile System began in 1974 with the U.S. Army requirement for a "tank-buster", launched from helicopters to defeat armored fighting vehicles. Production of the AGM-114A started in 1982. The test phase took place in 1984. Most variants are laser guided with one, AGM-114L "Longbow Hellfire", being radar guided. Laser guidance can be provided either from the launcher, such as the nose-mounted opto-electronics of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, other airborne target designators or from ground based observers, the latter two options allowing the launcher to break line of sight with the target and seek cover.

The Hellfire II, developed in the early 1990s is a modular missile system with several variants for maximum battlefield flexibility. Hellfire II's semi-active laser variants — AGM-114K high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT), AGM-114KII with external blast fragmentation sleeve, AGM-114M (blast fragmentation), and AGM-114N metal augmented charge (MAC) — achieve pinpoint accuracy by homing in on a reflected laser beam aimed at the target. Predator and Reaper UCAVs carry the Hellfire II.

Drone Command and Sensor Systems

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MQ-1 Predator controls
According to Wikipedia: During the campaign in the former Yugoslavia, a Predator's pilot would sit with several payload specialists in a van near the runway of the drone's operating base. Direct radio signals controlled the drone's takeoff and initial ascent. Then communications shifted to military satellite networks linked to the pilot's van. Pilots experienced a delay of several seconds between tugging their joysticks and the drone's response. But by 2000 improvements in communications systems (perhaps by use of the USAF's JSTARS system) made it possible, at least in theory, to fly the drone remotely from great distances. It was no longer necessary to use close-up radio signals during the Predator's takeoff and ascent. The entire flight could be controlled by satellite from any command center with the right equipment. The CIA proposed to attempt over Afghanistan the first fully remote Predator flight operations, piloted from the agency's headquarters at Langley.

The Predator air vehicle and sensors are controlled from the ground station via a C-band line-of-sight data link or a Ku-band satellite data link for beyond-line-of-sight operations. During flight operations the crew in the ground control station is a pilot and two sensor operators. The aircraft is equipped with the AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System, a color nose camera (generally used by the pilot for flight control), a variable aperture day-TV camera, and a variable aperture infrared camera (for low light/night). Previously, Predators were equipped with a synthetic aperture radar for looking through smoke, clouds or haze, but lack of use validated its removal to reduce weight and conserve fuel. The cameras produce full motion video and the synthetic aperture radar produced still frame radar images. There is sufficient bandwidth on the datalink for two video sources to be used at one time, but only one video source from the sensor ball can be used at any time due to design limitations. Either the daylight variable aperture or the infrared electro-optical sensor may be operated simultaneously with the synthetic aperture radar, if equipped.

All later Predators are equipped with a laser designator that allows the pilot to identify targets for other aircraft and even provide the laser-guidance for manned aircraft. This laser is also the designator for the AGM-114 Hellfire that are carried on the MQ-1.

MQ-1 Predator sensors
Each Predator air vehicle can be disassembled into six main components and loaded into a container nicknamed "the coffin." This enables all system components and support equipment to be rapidly deployed worldwide. The largest component is the ground control station and it is designed to roll into a C-130 Hercules. The Predator primary satellite link consists of a 6.1 meter (20 ft) satellite dish and associated support equipment. The satellite link provides communications between the ground station and the aircraft when it is beyond line-of-sight and is a link to networks that disseminate secondary intelligence. The RQ-1A system needs 1,500 by 40 meters (5,000 by 125 ft) of hard surface runway with clear line-of-sight to each end from the ground control station to the air vehicles. Initially, all components needed to be located on the same airfield.

Currently, the U.S. Air Force uses a concept called "Remote-Split Operations" where the satellite datalink is located in a different location and is connected to the GCS through fiber optic cabling. This allows Predators to be launched and recovered by a small "Launch and Recovery Element" and then handed off to a "Mission Control Element" for the rest of the flight. This allows a smaller number of troops to be deployed to a forward location, and consolidates control of the different flights in one location.

Advantages of Using Drones

Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post, “It is easy to understand why...the Obama administration has greatly increased the use of missile-firing drones...The unmanned aircraft can be flown above hostile territory — and used to locate, track and obliterate a target — without putting U.S. lives at risk. Since the drones are controlled electronically by human operators, they can be directed in ways that respond to changing conditions on the ground: If a fleeing target’s SUV turns right, the drone can turn right, too. [Source: Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, June 30, 2011]

According to The Economist: “Drones are much better than manned aircraft at hunting fleeting targets. They have the endurance to loiter patiently, so their remote pilots can pick the moment to release their missiles when there is both the greatest chance of success and the least risk to innocent bystanders. [Source: The Economist, October 8, 2011]

Leon Panetta said, when he was head of the CIA: Drone “operations have been very effective. It’s very precise, it’s very limited in terms of collateral damage and very frankly, it’s the only game in town n terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the Al-Qaida leadership.” Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has argued that the precision of drones allows the United States to limit civilian casualties and lessen risks for U.S. military personnel. The decision to fire a missile from a drone, he said, is taken with “extraordinary care and thoughtfulness.” He also said, "Countries typically don't want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns." By contrast, "there is the precision of targeted strikes." [Source: Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post , May 29, 2012]

Objections to Using Drones

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MQ-9 Reaper Satcom
James Traub wrote in Foreign Policy: “As military solutions go, drones really are hard to beat... The drone thus represents a lesson learned from the first generation of the war on terror: Precision limits popular backlash. But is that really true? By all accounts, drone strikes in Pakistan have become ever more accurate, but still inflame Pakistani public opinion almost as much as has the occasional incursion by U.S. or NATO forces. In March 2012, Pakistan's parliament voted to prohibit such strikes altogether. That outrage, in turn, has made it almost impossible for the United States to achieve its long-term goals of helping Pakistan become a stable, civilian-run state. Short-term success has jeopardized the long-term goal -- though that price might still be worth paying. [Source: James Traub, Foreign Policy, May 11, 2012]

Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post: “I am convinced that this method of waging war is cost-effective but not that it is moral. There has been virtually no public debate about the expanding use of unmanned drone aircraft as killing machines — not domestically, at least. In the places where drone attacks are taking place, there has understandably been great uproar. And in the rest of the world, questions are being raised about the legal and ethical basis for these antiseptic missile strikes. [Source: Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, June 30, 2011]

“Why should officials even think twice about using technology that can kill our enemies without putting American lives in harm’s way? Plenty of reasons. First, there’s the practical question of whether killing terrorists in this manner creates new ones. And in Pakistan, for example, the government has responded to public outrage by banning drone flights from an airfield that previously had been an operational hub, according to the Financial Times. There is also a legal question. The Obama administration asserts that international law clearly permits the targeting of individuals who are planning attacks against the United States. But this standard requires near-perfect intelligence — that we have identified the right target, that we are certain of the target’s nefarious intentions, that the target is inside the house or car that the drone has in its sights. Mistakes are inevitable; accountability is doubtful at best.

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Predator observes Afghanistan
“Most troubling of all, perhaps, are the moral and philosophical questions. This is a program not of war but of assassination. Clearly, someone like Ayman al-Zawahiri — formerly Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, now the leader of al-Qaeda — is a legitimate target. But what about others such as the Somali “militants” who may wish to do us harm but have not actually done so? Are we certain that they have the capability of mounting some kind of attack? Absent any overt act, is there a point at which antipathy toward the United States, even hatred, becomes a capital offense? It is one thing to assassinate known leaders of al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization with which we are at war. It is another thing to use drones in Libya, against a regime that posed no threat whatsoever to the United States. “

In June 2010, Reuters reported: “A United Nations investigator called for a halt to CIA-directed drone strikes on suspected Islamic militants, warning that killings ordered far from the battlefield could lead to a "Playstation" mentality. Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said missile strikes could be justified only when it was impossible to capture insurgents alive instead and only if they were carried out by regular U.S. armed forces operating with proper oversight and respect for the rules of war. The CIA’s use of unmanned Predator or Reaper drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan against al Qaeda and Taliban suspects had led to the death of "many hundreds," including innocent civilians, he said in a 29-page report. [Source: Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters, June 2, 2010]

"Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programs that kill people in other countries," Alston said. The world does not know when and where the CIA is authorized to kill, its criteria for choosing targets, whether they are lawful killings, and how it follows up when civilians are illegally killed, said Alston, an independent expert who presented his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“We have to be extremely careful and prudent about how we use this technology. It’s very efficacious in killing terrorists, but there are significant risks of blowback from its widespread use that could harm our counterterrorism efforts,” argues Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor who served in the George W. Bush administration’s Justice Department. [Source: James Traub, Foreign Policy, May 11, 2012]

Drones and the Law

Hellfire missile blowing up a tank
Under international law, targeted killings are permitted in armed conflicts when used against fighters or civilians who engage directly in combat-like activities, Alston said. "But they are increasingly being used far from any battle zone."

David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post: “The United States claims it has legal authority for such so-called signature strikes on training camps of al-Qaeda affiliates, under both the congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force passed in September 2001 and the international law of self-defense. This broad legal authority for targeting was outlined by John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, in a Sept. 16 speech at Harvard. [Source: David Ignatius, Washington Post, October 4, 2011; September 22, 2011]

“A senior administration official explains the policy this way: “If individuals target us, if they are in the chain of command for attacks against Americans,” then the United States will authorize “direct action” — putting such individuals on the “capture or kill” list that triggers a drone attack. But, the official cautions, “We don’t want to get involved in a domestic confrontation inside Yemen or Somalia, or increase anti-U.S. sentiment” in those places.

“The Authorization for Use of Military Force Act allows Mr Obama to employ “all necessary and appropriate force” against any country, organisation or person involved in the September 11th attacks or “to prevent future acts of international terrorism”. The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center compiles a list of approved targets, usually numbering less than several dozen, based on intelligence that they pose a serious, continuing threat to the United States. That list is reviewed every six months, and names come on and off.

Legal review is done by the CIA’s general counsel, who in turn consults with the White House counsel. Signature targeting was added in 2008, using the same 2001 presidential finding, which was renewed by President Obama in 2009. The rules call for notifying the National Security Council (including the attorney general) if a U.S. person is a target. Such a broader review apparently took place when Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen in Yemen who is a seniorofficial in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was added.

Anwar al-Awlaki,
American citizen killed by
drone-fired missile
The Economist said the use of drones in “apparently extra-judicial executions” provokes “three broad questions. Are drone strikes compatible with the laws of war? Was this killing legal? And, whatever the legality, is this system of meting out justice compatible with America’s longer-term interests? Our answers are yes, maybe and no. [Source: The Economist, October 8, 2011]

“America has a prima facie case that it acted legally. But that argument clearly needs to be tested. It is not just that international law, which surely applies in this case, is less generous towards targeted assassination. There are questions to be asked even under American law. What precisely, for instance, were the grounds for killing” others who are not the primary target. “And is the president’s right to place an individual on a “kill or capture list” greater than that individual’s constitutional right to due process? The Supreme Court should look at this rapidly.

“Finally there is the impact on America’s broader aims. Just as Guantánamo was against America’s interests though judged legal by some American courts, so targeted assassination may cause more problems than it solves. Although drones have decimated al-Qaeda, they have also helped to destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 190 million Muslims. Nobody wants to make America’s “long war” even longer.

Two things would make America’s conduct somewhat less controversial. First, all drone killings should be carried out by the armed forces, not the CIA: they must be part of the conventional chain of command. And second, there should be some system of formal judicial review to determine whether the evidence against someone is sufficiently strong to make that person a target for assassination. One American commentator, Harlan Ullman, has suggested using the secret courts that meet to authorise domestic surveillance as a model.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2012

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